The embrace of the cross

Why is the cross the most apt of Christian symbols? G.K. Chesterton offered a typically, well, Chestertonian answer in his masterpiece, Orthodoxy. A circle, Chesterton wrote, suggests infinity and perfection, but a perfection “fixed forever in its size.” By contrast, the cross “has at its heart a collision and a contradiction.” And because of that, it “can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its center it can grow without changing. The circle returns in upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.”

Chesterton’s insight into the universal embrace of the cross has a long pedigree in Christian theology; the Latin and Greek Fathers of the Church spoke of the cross in analogous ways. Thus that late first century manual of Christian prayers and practices, the Didache, describes the cross as a “sign of expansion.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem picked up on that image, noting that only God could be so expansive: “On the cross,” Cyril wrote, the Son of God “stretched out his hands to encompass the bounds of the universe.” Lactantius, a Christian apologist of the late third and early fourth centuries, saw in the cross a foreshadowing of the universal Church: in Christ’s suffering, “God stretched out his arms and embraced the world, thus prefiguring the coming of a people that would, from East and West, gather under his wings.”

St. Athanasius, one of the greatest of the Greek Fathers, pondered the cross of Christ surrounded by two other crosses, and saw in that scene on Calvary the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile into the one People of God: Christ, God made man, and thus made a creature capable of standing erect and extending his hands, reaches out to the two thieves, who figuratively represent the two peoples to be gathered into the one Church. And in his reaching out, the God-man tears down the walls of division between Jew and Gentile and extends God’s covenant of faithful love to the whole of believing humanity. The cross, by pointing in all four directions, symbolizes the radical inclusivity of God’s redeeming purposes.

And thus Hans Urs von Balthasar, the 20th century Swiss theologian from whom I’ve borrowed these patristic images, suggests that the cross of Christ is the ultimate ground of solidarity: solidarity among the members of the human race; solidarity between humanity and God.

Chesterton saw a “collision and a contradiction” at the heart of the cross. Balthasar takes a different tack and sees, at the center of the cross, not so much colliding wood but the sacred heart of Jesus. The heart of Christ crucified is, Balthasar writes, the fountain of the Church: “It is at the moment when Jesus suffers the most absolute thirst that he dissolves, to become an eternal fountain.” And from that fountain pour forth water and blood, Baptism and the Holy Eucharist: the sacrament from which the Church is born, and the sacrament from which the Church lives. In handing over his sacred heart in a perfect act of obedience to the will of the Father, Jesus redeems our wayward hearts, and makes it possible for us to make a gift of ourselves — to hand over to others, in love, that which is most intimate and personal to us.

Three times in my life, I have had the privilege of praying at the twelfth station of the cross — Calvary — in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The memories of jostling one’s way through the Old City’s narrow, winding streets, the noise of the tourists, and the cacophony of contending rites and sects in the basilica all fade away. It is, perhaps, the easiest place to pray in the world — and not so much prayer in the sense of formulated words, but prayer as “practicing the presence.” At the twelfth station, we are immersed in the sacred heart of Christ.

And there we find the center of the world, and the truth of the world’s story. That is why it’s “Good” Friday.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.